I bet you do. In fact, I’m sure you do from time to time. Maybe rarely, but I’m certain you’ve done it at least once. In fact, I know you have because I’ve come across quite often in the books I’ve reviewed.
Tautology. What is it? It’s “the use of words that merely repeat elements of the meaning already conveyed”, e.g.: they arrived one after the other in succession. ‘In succession’ means ‘one after the other’. In effect, that sentence says: they arrived one after the other one after the other.
It’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re writing, but it’s something to try to spot in your scrupulously thorough self-editing. However, as with most glitches, it’s more likely to be spotted by your beta reader or editor.
What are common examples of tautology ? Here are some you may recognise and just may have used yourself. Some are taken from books I have reviewed:
First priority—priority is a fact or condition that is more important than others, so ‘first’ is redundant.
Prediction about the future—a prediction is a forecast of something that may happen in the future. ‘Prediction’ on its own would do.
Over-exaggerate—to exaggerate is to represent (something) as being larger, better, or worse than it really is, i.e. to over-state it. So the ‘over’ in ‘over-exaggerate’ is unnecessary.
Nod one’s head—(a common one, this one)—to nod means “lower and raise one’s head slightly and briefly, especially in greeting, assent, or understanding, or to give someone a signa”l. ‘Nod’, on its own, would suffice.
Four p.m. in the afternoon—hardly likely to be four p.m. in the morning, is it?
Whisper in a low voice—to whisper is to speak in a very low or soft voice.
It’s sort of like—not sure if I even have to explain that one!
Murmur sotto voce—murmur is to speak in a very low or indistinct voice. Sotto voce is ‘in a quiet voice’.
Give away free tickets/free gift—if you’re giving it away, it’s free…
Please RSVP—RSVP is Repondez S’il Vous Plaît. ‘S’il vous plaît’ is French for ‘please’.
Necessary requirement—a requirement is something that is needed or wanted (i.e. necessary).
Shout it out loud—to shout is to…well, you know, don’t you?
A very common one, that has become accepted in modern usage, is ‘reason why’. (As have added bonus and close proximity which are, in fact, tautological.) The reason is why.
The reason why I went to the doctor, was because I sprained my ankle.
The reason I went to the doctor, was because I sprained my ankle.
Why did you go to the doctor? I sprained my ankle, that’s the reason why.
Why did you go to the doctor? I sprained my ankle, that’s the reason.
I’ll wager that if you now look through your work, you’ll probably find one or two examples. Tautology is slightly different to pleonasm or prolixity, which are, basically, tediously using too many words to describe something. Or, put plainly: verbal diarrhoea. Is tautology wrong or grammatically incorrect? Not really. However, it is unnecessary.
But…if you are guilty of the odd tautological slip-up, you’re in good company. Even the famous do it, you know: “I want to live while I am alive” – Bon Jovi